With the push of a button


Many have been pejoratively accused of being bleeding hearts, myself included.

Such accusations tend to come from the more cynical types among us, such as some of my fellow Viewpoint writers, or from others closer to us.

“Don’t be a bleeding heart,” my father would grumble every time I claimed that I would give a large amount of my lottery winnings to charity. Others tend to see bleeding hearts as nothing more than emotional wrecks that cannot seem to stand on their own feet.

I wish to propose a hypothetical situation, or as it is known in academic philosophy, a ‘thought-experiment’, that should alter this misguided notion.

I wish to espouse a negative-utilitarian position: namely, that a moral action is one that produces the greatest amount of pleasure for the largest number of persons. Negative-utilitarianism is concerned with a decrease in overall pain, rather than the amplification of pleasure.

The hypothetical situation is as follows: You are presented with a button that you know will end the life of every human being on Earth instantly. Everyone, yourself included, will die a painless and instant death as soon as that button is pressed.

My question is, are you morally obligated to press the button?

We constantly hear about the amount of pain and needless suffering that occurs in the world from both human as well as natural causes, and we know from our own lives that it seems to abound limitlessly; seeping in from every aspect of our daily life to various degrees.

With just a casual perusal of historical texts we can see that grief and desolation seem to arise repeatedly through time, without there being any suggestion that this pattern will end.

Even those who argue that suffering can teach us virtuous qualities and aggrandize our appreciation for the few pleasures we do have, should they consider the amount of unnecessary suffering that people have endured in times past, they would be left dumb and mute.

Though your pushing of the button would end all pleasure as well, surely ending all misery would be worth it.

Never again will a person feel heartbroken and rejected, nor will a mother have to watch her infant die of starvation. Never again will children be gassed en masse, or a person have to suffer through painful and terminal disease. No more wars; no more genocide; no more pain.

Of course, this problem is more dense than this article can convey; how can we know if there is more pain than pleasure in the world? How can we hope to quantify them? Isn’t what is pleasurable to one painful to another?

Nonetheless, you have the opportunity to press the button with your current knowledge of the world. Hasn’t the world’s interminable and unceasing flow of tribulations been thrown in our faces over and over again by the news, by literature, by philosophers, not to mention by the cynics as well?

Even if there is always the possibility that things will go well, doesn’t the evidence suggest that things will not? At least for all denizens of the Earth, and not just the privileged few?

Inevitably, the day will come when all humans are gone from the Earth (for whatever reason) and should nature continue to exist, it will most likely benefit from our absence.

Absolute silence envelops the Earth; plants retake the cities; animals are no longer hunted, poached or killed to extinction; forests flourish. No more hustle and bustle in outlaying industrial plants, no drunken shouting in the streets, no elderly neighbours screeching in reply, nor the din of highways overloaded with commuters and the keening of aircraft littering the skies. There is definitely something to be said for such a world.

Am I a cynic for thinking that the Earth would be better without any human beings to litter it? Or am I a bleeding heart, who cares so much for human beings that I think I am obligated to press that button?

While the likelihood of any one of us ever facing such a decision in real life is highly unlikely, perhaps impossible, I hope that you will nonetheless consider what your response might be.

Especially you cynics who consider the world’s plight irrelevant, and laugh at us bleeding-hearts for giving a damn; you’re only giving us reason to end it all.

Ignatius Rautenbach


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